Astronaut Mae Jemison Made History 25 Years Ago Today

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Dr. Mae Jemison

As a child, Mae Jemison worried that aliens would get the wrong idea about humanity from looking at the all-white, all-male crews of the earliest space missions. 25 years ago today, she helped set the cosmic record straight about humanity when Space Shuttle Endeavor launched on the STS-47 mission.

Jemison grew up watching the earliest space missions on TV, and when she noticed that the crews were all white men, “I thought that was one of the dumbest things in the world, because I used to always worry, believe it or not as a little girl, I was like: ‘What would aliens think of humans? You know, these are the only humans?'” she told a National Library of Medicine (NLM) interviewer for the Changing the Face of Medicine exhibition. Interstellar culture-shock isn’t the sort of thing the average eight-year-old worries about, but Jemison was by no means an average kid.

“My uncle, Uncle Louis, we’d look up at the stars and he would tell me they were really suns; they just were so small because they were so many miles away. He even discussed things with me about me about Einstein’s theory of relativity, at 6-7-8 years old, so I always assumed that I was supposed to be able to understand these things,” she said in the NLM interview.

Jemison had always known that she wanted to be a scientist.

“In kindergarten my teacher asked me—actually asked the whole class—now what do you want to be when you grow up? And I said, ‘I want to be a scientist.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now clearly, there is no issue with being nurse. But the issue back then was, is that’s the only thing she could see a little girl growing up to do, that had something to do with sciences. So she was trying to help guide me and counsel me, and… as to what was possible. But I really just put my hands on my hips, and I said, ‘No, I mean a scientist.’

“Because I was excited about the world around me.”


Jemison aboard STS-47

She was just as sure that she would go to space, but she never expected to be an astronaut. The young Jemison just assumed she’d be a scientist on Mars, because surely by the 1980s, that would be a perfectly normal career path.

“I always assumed I would go into space,” she told NLM. “Not necessarily as an astronaut; I thought because we were on the moon when I was 11 or 12 years old, that we would be going to Mars—I’d be going to work on Mars as a scientist.”

At 16, she got a scholarship to Stanford University, where she pursued a degree in chemical engineering (and also fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African American studies, proving that the sciences and the humanities can go hand-in-hand). She spent the next four years in medical school at Cornell University, including time spent volunteering abroad in Cuba, Kenya, and Thailand. After graduation, the newly-minted Dr. Jemison joined the Peace Corps as the Area Medical Officer for Sierra Leone and Libera, where she was responsible for managing the health care system that served Peace Corps and U.S. Embassy personnel in the two West African countries. While in West Africa, she also developed research studies on schistosomiasis, rabies, and a Hepatitis B vaccine.

The Peace Corps, Jemison still says, is the toughest job she ever had — including being an astronaut. “I was on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and I was responsible for people’s lives and their health. I was the person that was there. Period,” she told NLM. “And it required a very wide range of skills.”



Jemison at Kennedy Space Center

Returning to U.S. in 1985, Jemison went to work at CIGNA Health Plans of California as a general practitioner, filling her free time with graduate-level engineering courses and an application for NASA’s astronaut program, which the agency accepted in 1987. Five years later, Jemison was on her way to low Earth orbit as the Mission Science Specialist aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor. She became the first woman of color in space, breaking a barrier she had first noticed as a child in the early 1960s.

Aboard Endeavor, Jemison fulfilled at least part of her childhood plan to do science in space. The seven-day mission was packed with science, from investigating whether microgravity produces better semiconductor crystals for computer chips to studying how spaceflight affected the crew’s balance, motion, and stability.

Today Jemison runs Houston-based BioSentient, a medical device company, and supports an international science camp called The Earth We Share, encouraging a new generation of children to pursue science. Perhaps someday in the not-too-distant future, one of Jemison’s science campers will finally open up that lab on Mars.

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